Saturday, April 18, 2020

Old Times

There's an apocryphal story about Harold Pinter, that when he was just starting out as a dramatist he received a letter from a woman who had seen one of his plays. She said he was a very talented writer, but if he wanted people to enjoy his work, he was going to have to tell them who his characters were, where they came from, and why they behaved in such an extraordinary manner.

Pinter allegedly wrote the woman back that he was much obliged for her letter, but before he could provide her with a proper response, he would have to know who she was, where she came from, and what on earth motivated her to write a letter like that. The story might not be true. But it should be. After all, who are the people Pinter puts on stage? Where do they come from? And why on earth do we find them so fascinating?

When Pinter started writing plays in the 1950s, his work became associated with the term "comedy of menace" due to the way characters made strange threats to one another, frequently accentuated by long, pregnant pauses. The "Pinter pause" became a hallmark of his work. Critics pointed out that in order to make a scene menacing, you didn't have to change a line of ordinary dialogue, as long as you placed pauses at conspicuous moments.

Pinter's first play, The Room, premiered in 1957, and introduced the typical Pinteresque location of a house in a charming English seaside town that masked longing, fear, and violence. This setting was reprised in his second play The Birthday Party, which closed after only eight performances, but earned the respect of the critic Harold Hobson, who championed the piece. Pinter's next play, a one-act two hander called The Dumb Waiter, showed a pair of gangsters in a derelict hotel waiting for instructions while a dumb waiter mysteriously appears with food orders. The piece displays Pinter's knack for combining the existential angst of Samuel Beckett with the light-hearted foolishness of English variety acts.

In his three-act play The Caretaker, Pinter dealt with social issues including mental illness and homelessness, but they seem incidental to a drama of changing alliances and power structures among three men. Perhaps his most famous play, The Homecoming, premiered in London in 1965 and impressed critics with how much the author could leave unspoken, allowing the action to move forward even as characters discussed seemingly mundane topics. It brought Pinter's comedy of menace to fruition, deconstructing the traditional family household and laying bare the corruption the author saw underneath. After that, where does one go?

For Pinter, the answer was to delve into the nature of memory. This is something he does magnificently in Old Times, a play where the audience is constantly questioning what did or did not really happen in the characters' lengthy descriptions of the past. The play opens with a woman named Anna looking out a window while a married couple, Deeley and Kate, discuss her as if she hasn't yet arrived. Anna then joins them on a sofa and delivers a long monologue about what life was like when they were younger and she shared an apartment in London with Kate. At the end, she asks, "and does it still exist I wonder? do you know? can you tell me?"

Ultimately, though, we are left to ask if it ever existed. Anna later tells a story of Kate looking at her as if she were merely part of her dream. Time appears amorphous, and Kate apparently has to think before answering what month it is. The trio begins singing snatches of old songs by Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rogers and Hart, including Kern and Harbach's "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" which takes on a particularly elegiac feel:

               They asked me how I knew
               My true love was true,
               I of course replied,
               Something here inside
               Cannot be denied.
               When a lovely flame dies...
               Smoke gets in your eyes.

Beauty it seems, can only come into this world when things are ending, when flames are being extinguished. Deeley tells the story of how he and Kate met at a screening of the movie Odd Man Out, but did that really happen? Kate doesn't confirm the story, and Anna seems to openly contradict it later in the act. Most intriguing, though, is a story Anna tells, after explicitly saying she sometimes remembers things that may never have taken place:

This man crying in our room. One night late I returned and found him sobbing, his hand over his face, sitting in the armchair, all crumpled in the armchair and Katey sitting on the bed with a mug of coffee and no one spoke to me, no one spoke, no one looked up....

While telling the story, Anna changes it in the middle. Instead of the man moving quickly toward her, she decides he moved very slowly. In her story, the man leaves, but then in a new shift, she wakes up to see him lying across Kate's lap.

These images return in the second act, which takes place in the bedroom, but the set mirrors the room in the first act. Both have a long window up center, but instead of two sofas and an armchair, there are two divans and an armchair, and they "are disposed in precisely the same relation to each other as the furniture in the first act, but in reversed positions."

Similarly, the characters in the second act seem to be arranged in the same sorts of bizarre relationships, only the positions of Anna and Kate are reversed, with Anna and Deeley now alone, then attempting to compete for the attention of Kate, instead of Kate and Deeley beginning the first act together, and then competing for the attention of Anna.

Again, we get a series of stories that may or may not be true, and seem to change as different people tell them. At the end of a feat of verbal pyrotechnics Kate gives, which is reminiscent of some of Anna's monologues in the first act, Deeley starts to sob. He then lies across Kate's lap, just as the man did in Anna's story.

As the characters recall events, so they take place. The events of "old times" are actually the events of right now. The characters bemoan how life has passed them by, how everything was so much better back in some idealized past.

Many people have tried to "solve" the play, as if there is some solution to be riddled out. Perhaps the real riddle is why we always live our lives in the past, and fail to savor the moment when we have it.